Environmental approval recommended for gigawatt-scale renewable energy hub

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Australia’s largest proposed renewable energy project got a step closer after being recommended for approval by Western Australia’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) subject to conditions. The Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH), which could feature up to 15 GW of solar and wind capacity, aims to supply local energy users in the Pilbara region and develop a green hydrogen manufacturing hub for domestic use and export to Asia.

The mega project, which has been in the planning stages since 2014, was unveiled in 2017 as a 6 GW hybrid plant.  Since then, the project’s generation capacity was scaled up to 9 GW, 11 GW, and finally 15 GW last year. AREH was originally conceived to export renewable electricity to Jakarta and Singapore via subsea high voltage DC cables, but over time its focus has shifted to domestic industry consumers, with more than half of its output allocated for existing and new energy users in the Pilbara region. This includes mines, mineral processing, and anticipated large scale production of green hydrogen for local and export markets.

On Monday, the EPA recommended environmental approval for the project, subject to conditions including managing and monitoring impacts on migratory birds, as well as consultation on management plans with relevant stakeholders, including traditional landowners. “The EPA has completed its assessment of NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd’s proposal to construct and operate a large-scale renewable energy project with an expected operational lifespan of 50 years,” EPA Chair Tom Hatton said.

The largest renewables project the state’s environment watchdog has ever assessed, AREH is looking to build up to 1,743 wind turbines and a 2 GW solar farm – the latest numbers released on Monday. The wind turbines and solar panels are planned to be replaced halfway through the project’s life. It will also feature 14km of transmission lines to the coast and four high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea cables.

The project proponent, Adelaide-based consortium NW Interconnected Power, comprises Australian renewables developer CWP Energy Asia, a privately-owned developer of RE hubs Intercontinental Energy, Danish wind turbine giant Vestas, and global investment banking and diversified financial services group Macquarie. This makes it clear that Vestas has been confirmed for the wind energy side of the project, while the search for a solar partner is still ongoing.

Environmental concerns

The proposed project will cover a vast onshore and offshore development envelope of 662,400 ha, 220 kilometers east of Port Hedland. One of the difficult issues the EPA considered was the need to permanently clear a total of 11,962 ha of vegetation, representing 1.81% of the development envelope. It also considered the potential impact from the construction and operation of four subsea cables on benthic communities and habitat, marine environmental quality, and marine fauna.

“Fire management was also considered a key issue, with a staged fire management strategy proposed to monitor the potential impacts and benefits of a landscape-scale prescribed burns program,” Hatton said.

With the wind turbines 26 kilometers away from Eighty Mile Beach and 13 kilometers from Mandora Marsh, the EPA believes any potential impacts to migratory birds are manageable given the large distances from these important Ramsar wetlands. The WA environment watchdog has recommended detailed measures and actions to be carried out to mitigate any related risks for the regional flora and fauna. 

The site is home to a great number of species, including the threatened black-footed rock-wallaby, bilby, bats, reptiles, scorpions, land snails, and many more. The EPA has taken into consideration each and every species and came up with recommendations. To limit the potential impact on the species in the marine waters through which the cables will pass, including turtles, whales, dolphins, and sawfish, the EPA has laid out a detailed plan for cable deployment and proposed work to be undertaken by a hydro-plough or other similar low impact installation technique.

The EPA’s report is now open for a two-week public appeal period, closing May 18. Appeals can be made at www.appealsconvenor.wa.gov.au. The final decision on the proposed project will be made by Western Australia’s Environment Minister. Should it get an environmental nod from the state of Western Australia, AREH is forecast to reach financial close in 2021. Construction at the site will only start by 2024/25.